The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Case Against Textbooks

I have never been a fan of textbooks.  As a student I resented carrying several of them back and forth to school every day, reading long, dull chapters and searching for the answers to stupid questions. Inside the covers of many of my textbooks other students had written things like, “In case of fire, throw this in.” Although those were meant to be jokes, I think they reflected the feelings of my classmates at that time.

Much later, as a beginning teacher, I was asked to substitute for another teacher who was very ill. When it became clear that she would not be able to return to her job, I was invited to stay for the rest of the school year.  Almost the first thing I did was to collect the textbooks in students’ desks and store all of them in a classroom cabinet. Non of my students complained when they saw those books were missing, and a few actually cheered.

Several years and a few jobs later, I became the Chair of the English Department at a newly built high school. When our school district decided to purchase new English textbooks for us, none of my teaching staff was pleased. The only textbooks they needed to teach were the poetry collections we already had; and the teachers felt that obtaining new and popular fiction would be more beneficial for students. In all my later jobs as an elementary school principal we also opted for paperback copies of modern literature instead of textbooks and workbooks. Having a wide range of inexpensive materials at hand enabled teachers to use books that were appropriate for the reading levels and interests of all their students. In addition, they felt they could use a number of the books purchased to teach history, geography, or even some aspects of science.

The  problem with one-type-fits-all textbooks was–and still is–that they are developed by non-teachers who are attempting to serve the levels and backgrounds of all students everywhere with one book. And the results for students are boredom and assignments that do not serve their needs or interests.

In all those actions our purpose was not defiance toward our superiors, but a firm conviction that the materials teachers chose were better for teaching and less expensive than textbooks. In all the schools where I have been a principal we were able to amass large numbers and a variety of paperbacks to serve teachers’ preferences and students needs. We also found that paperbacks were more inexpensive than leather-bound copies. Their covers strengthened with Scotch tape lasted just as long, if not longer. And if the books lost their appeal after a year or two of use, we could through them away without  feeling we had been reckless.


Which Kind of School Do Students Need?

Today, I am posting a section of an article I wrote thirty-one years ago as part of a review of the book “McDonogh 15; Becoming a School.”* All I have done this time is change some words to bring school practices up to date.  I am posting such an old piece because I believe that the main issues I cited back then are still important.

Some schools are successful in raising student test scores; others concentrate on students developing good lives for themselves. What is the difference between their practices?

A school labeled as successful identifies student learning as high test scores and good grades for assigned work.  It does not take into consideration students’ abilities to solve personal problems, develop social skills, or explore new ground.  It does not differentiate between dynamic and inert knowledge or temporary and lasting skills; and it ignores student motivation.  In contrast, a school considered “good” mirrors the realities of life in an orderly adult society.  It is rational and open to change, a practice ground for the things adults do in the outside world.  It focuses on learning that grows through use, such as communication, decision making, exploration, craftsmanship, and group interaction.  It makes children think of themselves as mature people who find strength, nourishment, and satisfaction in each bit of new learning.

Students who cover a traditional curriculum in order to “master” as much of it as possible are not taught to be initiators, builders, or seekers.  They are, at best, reactors.  The knowledge they dutifully acquire is not often broad based or useful. It is taught because it is likely to appear on a test.

A realistic school,  on the other hand, has a broad-based and practical curriculum with subject matter chosen for its relevance to further experiences and opportunities in the outside world,  but also family and community membership,  It uses teaching practices that simulate the ways adults operate. Its students are actively involved in productive tasks that combine and expand their skills. They initiate creative projects, make their own decisions, enjoy  learning new tasks, show off their accomplishments, and look for harder, more exciting work to do.

A school becomes  realistic  when its principal and teachers make connections with the outside world. It creates a sense of community that encourages personal expression within a framework of  social  responsibility. It operates as an organic entity–not as a machine–moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages.

A realistic school is like a healthy tree.  As it grows, it sinks its roots into its native soil; it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun and rain.  It makes  its own food; it heals its own wounds; and in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.


*If You have not read this book, buy it or borrow it from your library.  You won’t regret it.

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Family Wealth or Poverty Shows Up in Students’ Test Scores

Because so many readers have been interested in the piece I re-posted about the serious problems in expecting young children to understand how language uses inflections to alter the meaning of a word, I decided to go one step further and re-post a piece by Dr, David Berliner who annualized compared student test scores in the United States to those of several European countries.  When I read his report on how the different demographics in  various countries affects students’  test scores I was persuaded that he was right

Recently, Dr. David C. Berliner decided to examine closely the PIRLS* test scores of American students as compared to those of students of other countries where they appeared to be much better. As he explains, “Standardized Achievement Tests are quite responsive to demographics, and not very sensitive at all to what teachers and schools accomplish.”

What he found in examining the 2016 average scores of students from several countries was that the US students had a score of 549, while those in Singapore scored 576, in Hong Kong 569, and in Finland 566. Although those scores looked bad for the U.S., Berliner felt that it was important to consider the different demographics in each country before making a judgment.

One significant thing he looked at was the percentage of American students on Free and Reduced Lunch in a school. When those percentages were low, students’ test scores were higher than in the other countries mentioned above. In fact, the lower the poverty rate was for an American school, the higher were its test scores.  Berliner asserted, “it’s our social and economic systems, not our schools, that cause lower scores than is (sic) desired by our nation.”

Ultimately, Berliner concluded, “If we want better scores on such tests, we need to get off the backs of teachers and schools. Our teachers and schools are presently educating a high percentage of our kids to very high levels of literacy. But that is not true for another high percentage of our kids. What we need to do to help those kids is to exert a lot more influence on our nations’ politicians to give us the equitable society that will promote higher achievement for all our citizens.”

The only thing I have to add is “Amen”.


* “The Progress in International Reading Literacy” is a test given to 4th graders in several countries. Since 2001, PIRLS has been administered every 5 years. It documents worldwide trends in the reading knowledge of 4th-graders as well as school and teacher practices related to instruction.


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 Let’s Not Feed The Common Core State Standards to Young Children

 Today I am presenting a piece I wrote two years before I started this blog. And then I forgot about it entirely until I was reminded by a friend, Teri Sassville, a few days ago. She and her colleagues in their organization “Stop Early Childhood Common Core” believe, as I do, that the many of the expectations of the CCSS are beyond the understanding of children in  primary grades and should not be taught until much later.

When I first read the Common Core State Standards for grades K-5, my visceral reaction was that they represented an unrealistic view of what young children should know and be able to do. As an elementary teacher and principal for much of my life, I could not imagine children between the ages of 5 and 11 responding meaningfully to the standards’ expectations. But clearly I was in the minority. Forty-five states have adopted the standards without a murmur of complaint; writers and publishers are racing to produce materials for teaching them, and the teachers quoted in news articles or advertisements speak of the standards as if they are the silver bullet they have been waiting for.

Since then, I have read the standards many times; and each time they are more troubling. Some standards call on young children to behave like high school seniors, making fine distinctions between words and literary devices, carrying on multiple processes simultaneously, and expressing their understanding in precise academic language. Others expect them to have a strong literary background after only two or three years of schooling.

Supporters of the standards are so blind to the diversity in American classrooms that they require children of different abilities, backgrounds, and native languages to manipulate linguistic forms and concepts before they have full control of their own home language. And sadly, a few standards serve only to massage the egos of education elitists, but are of no use to English speakers in college courses, careers, or everyday life.

To give you an inkling of the problems in applying the standards to young children, I offer a scenario of what might happen in a 1st-grade classroom when the following standard is approached:

“(L.1.1)Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.”

While reading aloud from a 1st-grade book, Zach stumbled over the word “recheck” and, although he eventually pronounced it correctly, his teacher felt that he did not fully grasp its meaning. It seemed like a good time to make the whole class aware of the prefix “re” and how it works. So, she stopped the lesson and wrote some words on the white board: remake, rewrite, and retell. Then she asked the children to explain what each word meant. Several students raised their hands and answered correctly.

Next the teacher asked, “What does the ‘re’ part of each word tell us?”  The first student called on said “re” means to do something again. Nodding in approval, the teacher wrote “recheck” on the board leaving a space between “re” and “check.” Then she asked, “So, what does ‘recheck’ mean?”

“To check something again,” answered the class in chorus.

Since things were going well, the teacher decided to continue by asking students to name other words that worked the same way. A few children confidently suggested, re-eat, re-dance, re-sleep, re-win, and others were waving their hands when she stopped them.

“Those aren’t real words,” she said. “We don’t say, ‘I’m going to re-sleep tonight. Let’s try to think of real words or look for them in our books.” After giving the class a few minutes to find words she asked again for examples.

This time, the words were real enough: repeat, renew, reason, remove, return, read, and reveal, but none of them fit the principle being taught. Since it seemed futile to explain all that to 1st graders, the teacher did the best thing she could think of.  She said: “You reminded (uh-oh) me of ‘recess,’  so, let’s go out right now.”

As they left the room, the children chatted happily among themselves: “We’re going to ‘cess’ again!” “We’ll ‘re-see’ our friends.” “I want to ‘re-play’ dodge ball.”

“Next time,” thought the teacher, “I’d better try a different prefix.” But then “un-smart” and “un-listen” popped into her head, and she decided to leave that particular standard for later in the year.

Although I could write scenarios for several other standards, they would make this paper much longer and not be as amusing as this one. Instead, I will present just a few more standards that I find inappropriate for K-5 students along with brief explanations of their problems.

A Reading/Literature standard for 4th grade calls on students to: “(RL.4. 4) Determine    the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in 4 mythology (e.g., Herculean).”

I can’t help wondering how 9- and 10-year-olds are supposed to do their “determining.” Competent, engaged readers of any age do not stop to puzzle out unknown words in a text. Mostly, they rely on the surrounding context to explain them. But, if that doesn’t work, they skip them, figuring that somewhere down the page they will be made clear.

Should young students regularly consult a dictionary or thesaurus while reading? I don’t think so. That’s a surefire way to destroy the continuity of meaning. Nor would I expect them to recall an explanatory reference from the field of classic literature at this early stage of their education. Moreover, for each “Herculean” word that matches a literary character, there would be several like “cupidity” and “pander” that have strayed far from their original meanings.

In the Reading/Information category, I quickly found a standard with expectations far beyond the knowledge backgrounds of the children for whom it is intended:

“(RI.2.3) Describe the connection between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text.”

Just assuming that 2nd graders are familiar with “a series” of historical events, etc., is simply unrealistic. But expecting them to “describe the connection between (sic) them” is delusional. Is there only one simple connection among a series of “scientific ideas”? How would you, as an adult, describe the connections among the steps in building a robot or even baking a pie?

In most of the Reading/Information standards, the same expectations for describing complex relationships among multiple items appear:

“(RI.5.5) Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or 5 information in two or more texts.”

For 5th graders, this standard would be even more difficult to meet than the previous one because it asks them to carry out two different operations on two or more texts that almost certainly differ in content, style, and organization.

In the Writing and Speaking/Listening categories, there are fewer standards altogether. Yet, some of these standards also make unrealistic demands. One asks 1st graders to:

“(W.1.7) Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of “how-to” books on a given topic and use them to write a sequence of instructions).”

Since this standard does not mention “adult guidance and support,” as many others do, I assume that a group of 1st graders is expected to work on its own to digest the content of several books, prune it to the essentials, and then devise a well-ordered list of instructions. This would be a complicated assignment even for students much older, requiring not only analysis and synthesis, but also self-regulation and compromise. I cannot see 1st graders carrying it out without a teacher guiding them every step of the way.

Of all the ELA standards, the ones in the Language (i.e., grammar) category are the most unrealistic. I could cite almost all of them as unreasonable for the grades designated and a few as pointless for any grade. Here is part of a kindergarten standard that fits both descriptions:

“(L.K.1).(When speaking) Produce and expand complete sentences in shared language activities.”

Most of the kindergartners I know have no idea what the term “complete sentence” means. Children and adults commonly speak short phrases and single words to each other. I can’t imagine any kindergarten teacher insisting during a group language activity that children speak in “complete sentences” or that they “expand” their sentences. Those directions would in all likelihood end the activity quickly as most children fell silent.

Here is another unrealistic standard, this time designated for 3rd grade:

“(L.3.1) Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.”

Aside from the unreasonableness of expecting 7- and 8-year-olds to explain the use of grammatical terms, this standard has no applications in reading, speaking, or writing. Research has shown unequivocally that being able to name parts of speech or diagram sentences has no positive effect on students’ writing. This standard wastes instructional time on a useless skill.

I cannot leave this critique of the ELA Standards without taking one more swipe at the Language category. Standard (L.4.1) asks 4th graders to:

Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and correctly use frequently confused words (e.g., to, too, two; there, their) in speech and writing.”

Several of these words are ones that many educated adults use incorrectly all the time. In fact “who” is so often used in place of “whom” that it is widely recognized as correct. Why not hold adults accountable for meeting this standard before expecting 4th graders to do so?

In finding fault with so many of the K-5 ELA standards, my familiarity with children’s abilities and educational needs have guided me. Standards advocates may well argue that I have offered no evidence and scant research to support my views. In rebuttal, I would argue that they are in the same position and that much of what they propose for children flies in the face of established learning theory and brain development research. The reality is that the standards’ creators have laid out a set of expectations for  America’s children that are grounded only in an antiquated conception of education and their personal preferences. And their followers, bedazzled by the standards length and breadth, illusion of depth, and elitist aura, have fallen into line as if lured by the Pied Piper of Hamelin.





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